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by inoljt

Three Important Moments in America’s Economic History (in Pictures)

2:15 am in Uncategorized by inoljt

The previous post looked at the economic history of the United States over the past two centuries. In that post, what stood out most was the fact that the economy of the United States has always been one of the strongest in the world.

There are three defining moments of American history after 1800, and this post will examine them. They are the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. How did these events affect the economy?

The Civil War

Before the Civil War, in 1860, this was how America was doing:
Economically and socially speaking, the United States was better than the vast majority of other countries in the world. The only two countries wealthier than the United States were Australia and the United Kingdom.

The Civil War was a devastating event. It killed more Americans than any other war in history and destroyed the South’s economy. How did that affect the United States?
Well, here’s the United States in 1865. In fact, the population and the economy of the United States has grown. The latter is in large part due to the effective economic policies of the Republican Party under Abraham Lincoln. It is true that living standards have grown slower than elsewhere. Still, the United States is very wealthy and very healthy after its worst war in history.

One ought to ignore the life expectancy statistic here, however. The previous post noted:

…the life expectancy data comes from several sources. From 1989 to the present, gapminder uses US Census Bureau data. From 1933 to 1988 the Human Mortality Database is used. From 1901 to 1932 the Human-Life Table Database is used. From 1880 to 1900 Professor James Riley’s compilation of life expectancy estimates (from over 700 sources) is used.

And what about from 1800 to 1879? Well, here the authors use a simple model. A very very simple model. They assume that all countries go through a health transition, and that the United States had not undergone this transition from 1800 to 1879. So gapminder sets United States life expectancy as 39.41 years for this entire 80-year period.

Obviously this model fails during the Civil War.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression was the worst economic crisis in the history of the United States. Here’s the United States in 1920, before the Great Depression:
The United States is the richest country in the world in 1920, although in terms of health it isn’t doing as great.

Let’s take a look at what happened afterwards.
By 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, the American living standard is actually worse than almost a generation ago. The good news is that Americans are a lot healthier. So the Great Depression was really as bad as it was advertised.

Look at the other countries, however. As badly as the United States is doing, livings standards are still the world’s best. Only Brunei (due to its oil), Luxembourg, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom have a higher GDP per capita adjusted to inflation and purchasing power parity.

World War II

World War II was good for the United States and bad for most of the rest of the world. In a sense, the United States was more powerful than at any other time in its history in 1945. Let’s take a look at the effect of WWII, beginning in 1940 at the start of the war:
In 1940 Germany and the United Kingdom are almost at par with the United States. As is typical, however, America is slightly ahead of the First World in terms of livings standards but just above-average in terms of life expectancy.

Here’s what five years of war did:
The destruction of World War II does enormous damage to the rest of the world, which falls behind. Only Brunei and Kuwait, due to oil, have higher GDP per capitas adjusted for inflation and purchasing power parity; their low life expectancy shows that this isn’t really an accurate reflection of their true economic strength at this time. At this time, the biggest countries behind the United States are Canada and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has a GDP per capita (adjusted for inflation and purchasing power parity) of $9,931; the United States $17,615.

Of course, this nice situation for the United States couldn’t have lasted forever. Absent a nuclear attack against the Anglosphere, the rest of the world would have started to catch up with the United States again. And, indeed, this is what happened.


It’s quite interesting how relatively little affect these great historical events had on American livings standards and life expectancy. Unlike other countries, the United States just keeps on a slow and steady growth path. It remains near the top or at the top. It would take quite a change – something far worse than the Civil War or Great Depression – to destroy this equilibrium.


by inoljt

Things the United States Makes

3:42 pm in Uncategorized by inoljt

One of the time-honored American political traditions is to complain about how America no-longer makes things. This is not quite true, however. America still makes plenty of things. In fact, America manufactures more stuff than any other country in the world.

Why, then, do so many Americans think that nothing is made in America anymore? Well, let’s take a look at four things that America makes:

Cars – This is perhaps the least surprising thing on this list. The world’s biggest car company is American. American car companies, however, have plenty of competition. German, Japanese, and South Korean companies all sell many cars inside the United States (strangely, France and Italy are home to some very prestigious automobile companies which have failed to penetrate the American market).

Commercial Airplanes – Remember the last time you bought a commercial airplane? Well, it was probably made in America. Boeing is the world’s dominant manufacturer of commercial airplanes. The only other company that can compete is Airbus, located primarily in France and Germany (Russia also makes commercial airplanes, but nobody buys them).

Construction Equipment – When you look at any construction site, you’ll almost certainly see a bunch of heavy yellow machines with the letters CAT stamped on them. Those machines were made in America. The industry of building machines which build buildings is dominated by one American firm: Caterpillar. The main other company that seems to also be in the business is Komatsu Limited, a Japanese firm with one-fourth as many employees as Caterpillar.

Tanks – It’s hard to tell, naturally, what country makes the world’s best tanks. Nevertheless, America does make a lot of tanks – and it’s probably safe-to-say that the quality of American tanks is amongst the best in the world (the cost, on the other hand…). It seems that the major “competitors” in this field are Germany, Great Britain, and perhaps Russia.


There are several things which are easily noted about this list. First of all, the items listed above are very difficult to make. These items require extensive expertise with lots and lots of parts that have to be put together just right (making those parts is usually a multibillion dollar industry itself). There is generally no room for failure. This is not like making a T-shirt (although America also does do that).

Secondly, America’s major “competitors” in manufacturing are not the countries most people accuse of stealing jobs. Third World countries do not manufacture the same things that America manufactures. Rather, America “competes” with France, Germany, Great Britain, and Japan.

Finally, to answer the question above: Why, then, do so many Americans think that nothing is made in America anymore? Well, the answer is that America tends not to make consumer goods that people buy every day. Rather, it makes things like cars, commercial airplanes, heavy construction equipment, and tanks. But if you ever decide to buy a commercial airliner for your next vacation, or some heavy construction equipment for your house…that commercial airliner or heavy construction equipment is probably going to be made in America.


by inoljt

Brazil and America

3:12 pm in Uncategorized by inoljt

One of the more fascinating television features produced is the PBS series “Black in Latin America.” This series, produced by Professor Robert Gates, explores (perhaps unsurprisingly) the experience of people of African descent in America.

An especially interesting episode is titled Brazil: A Racial Paradise? Professor Gates explores the experience of “blacks” in Brazil, a country with second-largest population of African descent in the world (including Africa).

Now, before viewing this series I’d been very aware that Brazil is not in fact a racial paradise. There is a very clean correlation between the color of one’s skin and one’s economic status. The rich and the elite of Brazil are all white; the poor and working class of Brazil are all black.

Unsurprisingly, Gates finds something very similar in Brazil. He states that:

When I landed in Brazil, I first went to Bahia. And I thought this Brazil is the land of the brown people. But when I go to hotels, restaurants, look at magazines, there’s no black people. [laughter] Me, I’m the only black person when I go to the hotels I look like.

You, because of your social standing, because of the places you are able to visit in Bahia, there will be many places where you will be the only black man, and you could still be badly treated.

Gates visits a Brazilian favelas – The City of God. There, talking with a resident of the favela, the following conversation occurs:

When you look around the wealthier parts of Rio, you can’t help but wonder if anything really has changed. Very few black faces here…

You feel the presence of Afro-Brazilians most in the poorest neighborhoods of Rio…

Up to the point that Gates said this, I had been feeling somewhat superior. The United States certainly has racism, but it isn’t as bad as Brazil. There is, for instance, a strong black presence in America’s political system – something which Brazil lacks.

But these words provided something of an epiphany. We have this in America too! When you look at the wealthier parts of the United States, you see very few black and Hispanic faces. You feel the presence of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans most in the poorest neighborhoods of America.

The vast majority of heavily black and Hispanic communities in America are poor. In fact, you can count on one hand the number of zip codes which are middle-class and heavily black. Middle-class whites actually feel scared when they go to a place in which the majority of people are black or Hispanic.

Something really terrible must have happened in a country in which this is true. Something is fundamentally crooked in a country like that.

by inoljt

Why Do So Few Americans Immigrate to Australia?

5:16 pm in Uncategorized by inoljt

In the minds of most Americans, Australia is a great place. The land down under has beautiful weather, a booming economy, and sights ranging from the Great Barrier Reef to kangaroos. What’s more, the culture and the language of Australia are as similar to the United States as any other country in the world, with the exception of perhaps Canada. What’s not to like about living in a country where everybody has cool accents?

Why, then, do so few Americans bother to immigrate to Australia?

Below is a very interesting table, taken from the 2006 Census in Australia (the exact table can be found here). It lists the top countries of birth for Australians:

Country of Birth Persons
Australia 14,072,946
England 856,940
New Zealand 389,463
China (excludes SARs and Taiwan Province) 206,591
Italy 199,123
Viet Nam 159,849
India 147,106
Scotland 130,204
Philippines 120,538
Greece 109,988
Germany 106,524
South Africa 104,128
Malaysia 92,337
Netherlands 78,927
Lebanon 74,848
Hong Kong (SAR of China) 71,803
Sri Lanka 62,256
United States of America 61,718

(Note: An SAR of China is a Special Administrative Region i.e. Hong Kong and Macau.)

America places very, very low; there are sixteen entries (not including Australia) which send higher numbers of immigrants than the United States. In fact, there are more Sri Lankan and Lebanese immigrants to Australia than American immigrants to Australia.

What’s doubly strange about this is that it’s not as if Anglo-Saxon countries don’t send immigrants to Australia. England sends the most immigrants out of any other country to Australia, followed by New Zealand. Other European countries, such as Italy, Scotland, Greece, and Germany also send lots of immigrants to Australia. All of these countries are dwarfed by America’s population, and yet Australia receives much more immigration from them than from the United States.

Australia is a very small country in terms of population; more people live in Texas than in the entire country of Australia. It is also a country with a very high number of immigrants; about one-in-four Australians was born outside of Australia.

For now, it seems, very few of those immigrants will be Americans.


by inoljt

One Factor Behind America’s Poor K-12 Education System

12:48 am in Uncategorized by inoljt

During my high school years, I had the acquaintance of a fellow student – a person who still holds a strong presence in my memory. This person was one of the most ambitious, most determined individuals in the school; today she goes to one of America’s top universities. She may very well be the next president of the United States – and this is a serious statement.

One day this student asked me an interesting question: “What do you see me doing when I’m fifty years old?”

I teased, “I see you as a high school English teacher.”

She laughed, “I would kill myself if that happened.”

This simple sequence provides a powerful illustration on why America’s K-12 education system is so bad. The best and the brightest view teaching K-12 as a demeaning profession. Go to a class in Harvard, for instance, and ask what the students there want to do after they graduate. There will be lots of future investment bankers, lawyers, and politicians. There will probably very few K-12 teachers, if any at all.

In the countries with the world’s best education systems, places like Finland and Singapore, the conversation above makes no sense. Ambitious, talented people – like the classmate mentioned above – actually want to be teachers in Finland and Singapore. In America this isn’t the case.

This is a big reason why America’s public education system is so weak. A strong education system has good teachers. Logically, a country in which talented people want to be teachers will have good teachers. A country in which talented people belittle the K-12 teaching profession – say, a country like the United States – will probably not have good teachers.
Read the rest of this entry →

by inoljt

Do You Have to be Born Rich to Become President?

1:36 am in Uncategorized by inoljt

When Senator Barack Obama was elected president, his victory was widely taken as a momentous event. In racial terms, Mr. Obama constitutes the first minority president of the United States. This is quite an impressive feat – something that many Americans did not think could be done as late as 2007.

From another perspective, however, Mr. Obama’s election looks less impressive. This perspective is that of class. Mr. Obama was raised by an upper-middle class family: his mother was an anthropologist who had a PhD degree, and Mr. Obama went to a fairly prestigious private school in Hawaii during his early years.

The last president, Mr. George W. Bush, was also born to a wealthy family – in this case far higher up the social ladder than Mr. Obama’s family.

All this raises the question of whether one must be born with parents of a certain income to become president of the United States. In today’s America, inequality higher than it has been for a long time. Does that inequality exclude those born from non-affluent backgrounds from potentially becoming president?

This is a difficult – impossible – question to fully answer. Nevertheless, in the hopes of partially doing so, I have made a table of several recent presidents in the United States and their family background:

Before beginning an analysis of these results, several caveats must be noted. Research for his table relied heavily entirely on a certain online encyclopedia – because this is a blog post, not a peer-reviewed study. Moreover, much of this data is very subjective and subject to dispute. The difference between a “middle-class” and an “upper-middle class” family background is a bit harder to define than the difference between, say, the number three and four. So is evaluating whether a president is “good” or “bad;” with a president like George H. W. Bush, for instance, “neither good nor bad” is probably a better answer than “good.”

The designations of “lower-class,” “working-class,” and so on were drawn from the jobs of the parents. “Elite” generally means the president’s father – and it is always the father, given the way American society is structured – was a President himself, a Governor, a Senator, an executive of a powerful national business, etc. As for the evaluations of whether said president was “good” or “bad,” those are based upon what most historians and Americans think – not personal opinion.

This table is a cropped version of the full results. For the full table – including all the presidents, which would be too long to put on this post – see here.

With these caveats in mind, there are nevertheless some conclusions that may be drawn from the table. Not all of America’s presidents came from rich and wealthy backgrounds; in fact, only four of the fourteen presidents in the table had “elite” backgrounds. President Bill Clinton’s stepfather worked as the owner of an automobile dealership; President Ronald Reagan’s parents didn’t own a house until Mr. Reagan became a famous actor.

On the other hand, coming from a well-off background certainly helps. Fully half of the presidents above had “elite,” “upper-class,” or “upper-middle class” parents. Interestingly, five of these presidents with well-off backgrounds were Democrats; two (the Bushes) were Republicans. This is fairly ironic given the working-class versus business-class association occupied by the parties.

A president’s family background had relatively little to do with whether he was a good president. Of the nine good presidents in the list, five came from well-off backgrounds and four came from poorer backgrounds.

In fact, a regular person’s chances of becoming president are higher nowadays than they were in much of the past. For instance, during the Gilded Age – if one takes a look at the full list – seven consecutive presidents (from President Chester Arthur to President Woodrow Wilson) came from “elite” or “upper-class” backgrounds.

There is other interesting information on the full list. Of America’s 43 presidents, 24 presidents were “good” presidents, while 17 were “bad.” “Good” and “bad” presidents tend to come and go in waves. From President George Washington to President Andrew Jackson, a total of seven consecutive presidents were “good.” But then immediately after comes a long list of really “bad” presidents, from President Martin Van Buren to President James A. Garfield. Out of these thirteen presidents, eleven are “bad.” To be fair, one of the “good” presidents – President Abraham Lincoln – is commonly considered the greatest president of the United States.

In total, 13 presidents had “elite” backgrounds. This is more than the 10 presidents who had “lower-class” or “working-class” backgrounds. Of those 13 presidents with “elite” backgrounds, 8 were “good” presidents and 5 were “bad.” On the other hand, 5 of the ten presidents with “lower-class” or “working-class” backgrounds were “good.” Given the small sample size, this is not enough to really say anything conclusive.

One can do the same with political parties. The Democratic Party has elected 13 presidents; nine of these came from “well-off” backgrounds. By contrast, the Republican Party has elected 20 presidents. Of these, only eight came from “well-off” backgrounds. On the other hand, eight of the the 13 Democratic presidents were “good” presidents, while only 10 of the twenty Republican presidents were “good” presidents.

In conclusion, slightly more than half of America’s presidents were “good” ones. Democratic presidents, surprisingly, tend to have more elite backgrounds, and Republican presidents more humble ones. But Democratic presidents are also slightly more competent.

And to answer the question posed in the title: No, one does not have to be born rich to become president today – which was not always the case in the past. But being born rich certainly does help.


by inoljt

The American Dilemma in Egypt

11:31 pm in Uncategorized by inoljt

Should the people of a given country be allowed to vote in free and fair elections, even if the people they elect are fundamentally hostile to the United States?

That is the great question which is facing America today, as protests have toppled the leader of Tunisia and now threaten the presidency of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Almost everybody agrees that Mr. Mubarak is a dictator who does not respect human rights or promote democracy. He is a typical example of the authoritarian leader, whose values are fundamentally at odds with those of the United States. It is quite conceivable that the current protests will end in bloodshed, with the military firing upon civilians in a Bloody Sunday-style massacre.

In a perfect world, a peaceful revolution would topple Mr. Mubarak and install a new democratic government. Said government would be moderate, friendly to the West, and firmly against Islamic extremism.

Unfortunately, the truth is that Mr. Mubarak’s strongest political opponents are the Muslim Brotherhood, a proudly Islamist movement with broad popular support. If the protests in Egypt succeed in toppling the dictator, the most likely situation is the formation (through free and fair elections) of an Islamist government hostile to the United States.

Therein lies America’s dilemma – betray its ideals and support an “ally,” or keep its ideals and allow an anti-American government to take power.

Historically, the United States has chosen the former option. During the Cold War, dictators were always perceived as better than popularly elected Communist governments. Today replace Communism with Islamism, and one gets the same idea.

Yet think about this: why do the people of Egypt so dislike the United States? Why would they most likely elect, if given a choice, an anti-American government?

The answer, of course, is because the United States keeps on supporting dictators like Mr. Mubarak! In fact, that is why Osama bin Laden attacked the United States – because it continues allying with dictators in the Middle East, in direct contradiction of its democratic values.

Why does the United States support these dictators? Because it knows free democratic elections will result in anti-American governments. Why would elections result in anti-American governments? Because the United States keeps on supporting dictators who oppress the people. And on and on the cycle goes.

The problem is that dictators may not stay in power forever. A U.S.-supported dictator, if unpopular enough, may fall. Iran and Vietnam are just two examples in which this happened. Today Iran is a determined foe of the United States. On the other hand, the communist government in Vietnam is quite friendly to America.

In the short term supporting friendly dictators might benefit American interests. In the long run, however, supporting those who oppress their people probably does more harm than good to America – and more importantly, to the cause of freedom and democracy.


by inoljt

Anti-Americanism in Pakistan

4:01 pm in Uncategorized by inoljt

By: Inoljt,

The New York Times recently posted a disturbing video on Pakistan. The report addresses the topic of anti-Americanism in the country, specifically with regards to its westernized, well-educated musicians:

While Pakistani journalists, playwrights and even moderate Islamic clerics have boldly condemned the Taliban, the nation’s pop music stars have yet to sing out against the group, which continues to claim responsibility for daily bombings.

This summary doesn’t do justice to the report. One really needs to watch the video – to hear the musicians themselves speak – to get a sense of their anti-Americanism.

This anti-American sentiment is deeply, deeply imbued. These musicians are simply angry at the United States; their voices, their faces reflect profound outrage. They hate the United States for a litany of offenses familiar to most in the Muslim world: Guantanamo Bay, Abu Gharib, the Iraq War, the drone attacks today.

Indeed, so strong is this anger that many musicians implicitly support the Taliban.

One musician snaps that

First of all, it’s the West that’s against the Taliban…We’re not.

Another, when presented with Taliban wrongs (bombings of girls’ schools), offers the rebuttal that

Well, you know, and you cannot blame Taliban for that. Where do you think those fundings are coming from? It’s – it’s the – it’s the, the agenda of the neocons is to deIslamicize Pakistan. Religion must be killed.

Understanding this implausible answer – under its logic, American neoconservatives are sending suicide bombers to attack Pakistani schools – depends on watching the singer’s emotions, not listening to the words themselves. His anti-Americanism is primarily an emotional response (especially to humiliation), upon which an intellectual framework can be built.

Thus, it is simple for these musicians to create a framework of cognitive dissonance. When a drone missile kills civilians, they explode with passionate anger and incorporate the deaths into every politicized song. But when Taliban suicide bombs kill ten times that number, they offer excuses and then ignore the tragedy. When American soldiers humiliate Abu Gharib prisoners, they never forgive and never forget. But when Taliban insurgents kidnap and behead Westerners, it is all for the greater good. The United States is never right; the Taliban is never wrong.

All this anti-Americanism is quite ironic – firstly because if the Taliban took control, these artists would be forbidden from making music. It is also ironic, however, since these musicians are western-oriented by nature. They’re well-educated – some actually lived in the United States. They speak English fluently. Their music imitates the worst of Western pop. Their videos would be familiar to any consumer of Britney Spears or Beyonce. By all rights, they should be vehement supporters of the United States.

Yet America has lost these musicians to the Taliban. When America cannot hold even Pakistan’s well-educated and Westerized elites – let alone the religious masses – that is a very bad sign.

Moreover, U.S. efforts to win Pakistani hearts and minds are probably doomed to fail. A superpower can do many mighty things – hold up the world economy, destroy the world – but it is ill-suited to the delicate task of being popular. Throughout the whole of human history, superpowers have almost never turned "haters" into "lovers." Instead, they have mostly killed the haters.

Given this reality, the best course of action for America now might be a slow withdrawal from Middle East affairs. More than anything other region, Middle East politics have drained American vitality and hastened its decline. Pakistan, moreover, has little strategic value or natural resources to offer the United States. India would be a far better ally – one that actually likes the United States. There is still the nuclear question, but the United States should not be the policeman of the world. Let others deal with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons; they have more to lose if things go wrong.

Of course, this proposal is far easier said than done. If the United States left the Middle East alone, it would lose the lifeblood of its economy – oil. So first, it must develop an alternative source of fuel, which constitutes a difficult task (to put it lightly). Until that happens, Afghanistan must be taken care of so that bin Laden does not get a new hide-out base.

But, at the very least, America should stop giving aid the Pakistan. Pakistan doesn’t want it anyways, and the money can be put to better use – like investing in alternative fuels. It would be a good first step in a long, hard road.

by inoljt

Self-Correction in American Elections

11:45 am in Uncategorized by inoljt

One thing I’ve recently observed is the degree to which America self-corrects when selecting its leaders. It’s very interesting to compare successive presidents; the new president nearly always lacks the weakness the previous president had. Though of course he comes with his own flaws.

I’ll start with Jimmy Carter. Carter was known for being honest and a bit naive, in stark contrast to his predecessor Richard Nixon.

Carter, however, had a negative reputation for being an obsessive micromanager. He was replaced by Ronald Reagan – who was famous for leaving the details (and sometimes the whole plan itself) to his aides.

Reagan and the elder Bush were criticized as too old for the job. So along came Bill Clinton and Al Gore, the youngest presidential team in history, as the next presidential group.

Of course, Bill Clinton is remembered for his sexual indiscretion and the Monica Lewinsky affair. His replacement – George W. Bush – was widely characterized as morally upright and religious.

He was also characterized as stupid. Which is a criticism nobody would level at his successor Barack Obama – one of the most intellectual persons who has ever graced the high office.

And so the cycle continues onwards.